I have an ongoing project to read books by all the Nobel Prize winning authors. Svetlana Alexievich won the prize in 2015 and I chose Voices From Chernobyl as my introduction to her although I am not sure if it gives me a real grasp of her writing because the subject matter is so haunting, so emotionally-stirring that she could be carrying sentences in a bucket and I would still be interested. On April 26, 1986, there was a nuclear reactor accident in Chernobyl in Ukraine. While I have been aware of the event since then, I have never done any in-depth research on what caused it or read any personal accounts that describe the experiences of the victims or survivors. In fact, Alexievich’s book is one of the first to record personal testimony. In her capacity as journalist, she interviewed people connected with the incident over a period of ten years, a labor of love if ever there was one, and introduces readers to a subject that evokes a connecting thought when the name is mentioned but brings a new awareness about this decades old but still very relevant topic.
- Title: Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster
- Author: Svetlana Alexievich
- Pages: 226
- Genre: History
What the book is about
The prologue is the account of a woman who was widowed after the Chernobyl accident in 1986. Her husband was a firefighter and was one of the first responders when the nuclear reactor eroded. In this first interview, the young wife shares the experience of staying by her husband’s side in the hospital despite being warned that he had radiation poisoning. Her statement is probably the saddest thing I’ve ever read because it’s gruesome and it’s true. She describes hiding her pregnancy from her husband’s doctors because they wouldn’t have allowed her to stay with him if they knew, of giving birth afterwards and the baby also dying from radiation – the fetus had absorbed the poison instead of the mother. She wails at her loss but also at the unbelievable choice she’d made – killing the child to love the father. In a moment of philosophical questioning, she asks, “You can’t kill something with love, right?”
Part One: The Land of the Dead contains interviews about those who witnessed the death, those who abandoned everything when they were evacuated from the neighboring villages. Later transcripts contain a complete reversal of the earlier ones, with interviews from those who moved to Chernobyl after the disaster, those for whom life had become so desperate that even the abandoned land was now a haven. In the final pages of this section, there are snippets, just sentences really, like a litany of voices, all sharing their own memories, comparing Chernobyl to the war, some of the people having lived through both experiences. One voice captures it all , “Here we have the war of wars – Chernobyl.”
Part Two: The Land of the Living contains testimonies of those who continue to live and here we meet parents whose children who were born with defects and need special surgeries just to live; soldiers who were given guns and ammunition to kill all the animals that had been exposed and how performing those acts changed them; people who do not fit in anywhere because they have no identity other than they are from Chernobyl; a photographer who captured the tragedy and returned to work to find that a memorial had been erected for him although he had survived – when they needed someone to return to the site, he was tasked to go back because for them, he’d already been exposed, he had already been sacrificed. Then there is the story of the museum curator who received medals and certificates from a widow – she threw the emblems at him demanding that he give her back her husband in exchange. We meet the human dosimeter – a man who walked around the Zone to mark the points of maximum radiation and is now (at the time of the interview being recorded) paralyzed, awaiting death and the recognition that will only come posthumously, streets that will be named in his honor only after he has died. In Monologue About Lies and Truth on page 132, a scientist recounts some of the personal sacrifices that made the book possible – the young soldiers who gave their lives to prevent the disaster from escalating.
There was a moment when there existed the danger of a nuclear explosion, and they had to get the water out from under the reactor so that a mixture of uranium and graphite wouldn’t get into it – with the water, they would have formed a critical mass. The explosion would have been between three and five megatons. This would have meant that not only Kiev and Minsk, but a large part of Europe would have been uninhabitable… So here was the task: who would dive in there and open the bolt on the safety have? They promised them a car, an apartment, a dacha, aid for their families until the end of time. They searched for volunteers. And they found them. The boys dove, many times and they opened the bolt, and the unit was given 7000 rubles. They forgot about the cars and apartments they promised – but that’s not why they dove…Those people don’t exist anymore, just the documents in our museum, with their names. But what if they hadn’t done it? In terms of our readiness for self-sacrifice, we have no equals… They didn’t allow anyone to film the tragedy, only the heroics. it required a lot of courage to tell the truth about Chernobyl.
This testimony was painful to read, but also necessary to know.
Part Three is subtitled Amazed By Sadness but that could describe the entirety of these recollections. In the first monologue, a witness recalls watching the reactor glowing from a ninth floor view, and how beautiful it all looked; a chemical engineer describes how some of the dosimeters that they were given to test the radiation levels of their surroundings were really toys that didn’t work, or how others brought their devices to burial sites to get high readings so they could released early, while enterprising others constructed McCoy devices that they would use to secure vodka in exchange for waving wands in front of anxious villagers and proclaiming them “Safe”. Another recalls how everyone and everything in the Zone stopped being whatever else they were before and became radioactive byproducts – We see a woman on a bench near her house, breastfeeding her child – her milk has cesium in it – she’s the Chernobyl Madonna p. 162
Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster is one of the most moving pieces of writing I’ve ever encountered. The collected stories and reports are poignant but also paradoxical because these victims and survivors recall the hopelessness of their situation and also the hope that emerges, a refusal to stop believing even when the tenets of your faith are being shattered. Reading this felt a little like rubbernecking on the highway, wanting to hear these devastating testimonies and be a virtual witness but also being unable to look away because I knew that afterwards, I would be changed. I studied Chemical Engineering in college and yet this book is a lesson on nuclear reactions because it illustrates the horrors of these incidents in a way no textbook has ever described. Svetlana Alexievich was the first to compile these reports and with this book, she has made a huge contribution to the collected history of our time, reporting not just what we wish happened, but what did.